Macedonian Front
Entente forces defeat Bulgaria
21 October 1915 - 30 September 1918
author Paul Boșcu, July 2018
The Macedonian Front was a campaign fought during World War One in an attempt to aid Serbia which had been invaded by the Central Powers. Although the British and French forces arrived to late to aid the Serbs a front line was formed in Greece. For the next few years the multinational Entente forces sporadically engaged the Bulgarian Army that was, at times, aided by smaller contingents of other Central Powers forces. The Bulgarians were eventually defeated in September 1918, when the Entente launched a major offensive that broke the back of the Bulgarian Army.

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The Macedonian Front, also known as the Salonika Front, began in 1915 when the Entente Powers attempted to aid Serbia, which was under attack from the Central Powers. The expedition arrived too late to be of any aid to the Serbs and eventually the front stabilized along a line from the Adriatic Coast to the Strumma river. The Bulgarians, aided by smaller contingents of other Central Powers forces, faced a multi-national force of the Entente countries. Eventually the Entente launched a decisive offensive which defeated the Bulgarians and liberated Serbia.

Strategically, the Salonika Front was at best a side show in the grand scheme of things during World War One. The front exerted no pressure at all on the Germans, who maintained a scratch force on the frontier. It drew no enemy force away from the Western Front, brought no aid to the Russians and posed no threat to the Turks.

German journalists contemptuously described Salonika in 1915 as ‘the greatest internment camp in the world’. It was worse than that. As numbers grew and malaria rampaged, it became a great military hospital, where casualties from disease sometimes exceeded one hundred percent of the strength of some units present.

By October 1915 it had become apparent to the Entente that Serbia, which was being attacked by Austro-Hungary, Germany and Bulgaria, needed help. The question was, could such a demonstration be arranged? With the Austrian Navy a threat in the Adriatic and with the absence of harbors capable of supporting any serious expeditionary force on the Albanian coast, this left only the Greek port of Salonika as a feasible base for the launch of such a campaign. The Entente forces mobilized, but by the time they reached Salonika it was too late for the Serbians.

As the last Serbian troops were evacuated from Albania by sea in January 1916, the Entente had missed a golden opportunity in failing to insist that the Greeks honored their treaty obligation to go to Serbia's aid in the event of a Bulgarian invasion. The Serbs had outfought the Austrians, but the German-Bulgarian invasion proved too much. A combined Serbian and Greek army could have deterred Bulgarian ambitions and blocked passage from Germany to Constantinople over the Berlin-Baghdad railway.

Greece was torn from within and at the same time fearful of being drawn actively into the war. Although technically victorious in the Balkan Wars, the Greeks had still suffered a painful experience which they would rather not repeat quite so soon. So, at the outbreak of the Great War, Greece remained neutral, although this did not prevent bitter internal political battles over which side it should favor.

King Constantine naturally favored the Central Powers, having been educated in, and having carried out his military service in Germany; indeed, he was married to the Kaiser’s sister, Sophia.

The Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, had long favored the Entente. He saw their intervention as a means of expanding Greek influence in the Balkans. As the threat to Serbia became more acute and a Bulgarian intervention appeared more likely, the Entente attempted to bully Greece using Venizelos as the ‘inside man’ who made the initial offer to allow an Anglo-French force to land at Salonika.

For the Entente, to generate a suitable Salonika Expeditionary Force (SEF) to intervene in the Balkans was no easy matter. It was only the acceptance of the total failure of the Gallipoli operations that allowed the French to contribute their 156th Division. Meanwhile the British sent the 10th Division commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Bryan Mahon. In overall command was the French General Maurice Sarrail.

Sarrail was an interesting character: a politically left-leaning general who had participated in the opening campaigns in France in 1914, but who had then fallen foul of Joffre and been dismissed in July 1915. Sarrail had some powerful friends, but also some equally powerful enemies. So the French military authorities considered that the command of the SEF would be an ideal compromise posting for him: it was a serious appointment, but a long way from the Western Front.

The first Entente troops began to disembark at the port of Salonika. Bulgaria still had not joined the war, but there was a more immediate complication in a violent disagreement between King Constantine and Venizelos over what in effect was a flagrant breach of Greek neutrality. The Greek prime minister was forced to resign and a prolonged period of political instability ensued. In the end the Greeks offered no resistance to the Entente presence at Salonika. Yet it was now too late for the Serbians.

When, a day after the landings started, General August von Mackensen launched his offensive against Serbia, joined shortly afterwards by the Bulgarians, it was evident that whatever the SEF had been meant to achieve had been rendered redundant.

French and British troops began to arrive at Salonika in the late summer of 1915, initially from Gallipoli where stalemate had set in after an ill-starred August offensive.

The British and French, whose efforts in the struggle for Greek liberty had been the chief cause of their winning independence from the Turks in 1832, and who had championed independent Greece in every subsequent international crisis, now began to behave as if its sovereignty was entirely secondary to their convenience. They had already requisitioned Greek Lemnos, the largest island of the northern Aegean, as a base for the Dardanelles campaign. Their landing at Salonika, the kingdom's second city, had been made without a by-your-leave. Once the Anglo-French decision had been made to remain in Greece, the Entente proceeded to transform their Salonika base into an extraterritorial military settlement.

King Constantine, at one point, protested feebly, ‘I will not be treated like a native chieftain,’ but the Entente did so nonetheless. The Greek army maintained a nominal presence at the settlement's perimeter.

Mahon had been given cautious orders from London, requiring him to stay close to Salonika pending the final decision of the Greek government as to whether to abandon neutrality. But Sarrail was determined to push inland anyway. He crossed the Serbian border and advanced into the Vardar Valley with the intention of supporting the Serb forces. The most he could hope to achieve was to hold open a line of retreat for the Serbs.

When the British finally moved forward, in early November, it was all far too little too late and, with hindsight, probably best not at all. The Serbian Army was already defeated, its remnants falling back towards the Adriatic coast. Bulgarian troops had already blunted the French and British effort to relieve pressure on the Serbs in Macedonia, and the two Entente divisions that had crossed the Serbian frontier in October were back again on Greek territory.

The Serbs congregated in the small ports up and down the Albanian coast, and were eventually rescued by the Royal Navy. Some 250,000 Serbian troops were evacuated to the Greek island of Corfu. It was a massive undertaking and must have appeared of little real military value as the emaciated Serbian scarecrows boarded the ships.

The Serbians had been defeated, yet, given the chance to recover, new men would rise from what appeared to be worthless dregs – some six Serbian divisions would eventually return to serve on the Salonika Front.

As the British and French fell back, they formed a line just inside the Greek border to try and hold back the Bulgarians. The British wanted to evacuate, but the French would not consider it. In the end the French had their way and once again the British would ignore their better instincts in the cause of alliance warfare. The Salonika Front became a permanent fixture for the rest of the war. Despite all their efforts, the Entente still only had enough forces to defend themselves, and not enough to attack with much hope of success. As the Bulgarians were forbidden to press into Greece by the Germans, who were fearful of triggering direct Greek involvement in the war, there they would stay in static oblivion.

The French attitude may seem inexplicable, given that a vital part of France was occupied by the German Army. But significant sections of the French political and military establishment considered the war there to be a hopeless stalemate and that another avenue must be taken to achieve victory. In this they were enthusiastically supported by the arch ‘Easterner’, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, who was quite obsessed with dreams of a breakthrough in the Balkans.

Clearly if they were to stay the Entente needed reinforcements, so the British sent four divisions, while the French allotted more and more reserves to the campaign until they had nine divisions serving in Salonika. The reconstituted Serbian divisions began to arrive from Corfu in April 1916. The Italians sent a division and even the Russians contributed a brigade. Sarrail was confirmed as commander of this Armée d’Orient.

By the end of 1915 construction of the 'Entrenched Camp' (or 'Birdcage' as its occupants called it) was almost complete. Its perimeter extended some 80 miles, much of it lakes and marshes presenting good obstacles. Sarrail's orders were to pin down German forces to prevent their transfer to Verdun on the Western Front. An advance out of the entrenched camp was planned for early March 1916 when the roads became passable. French and British troops accordingly pushed some 20 miles out of their positions towards the Bulgarian border.

Sarrail had his work cut out just building up the logistical framework within which his polyglot army could exist. Salonika itself was almost swamped as it was required to act simultaneously as a port, the main supply base depot and as a huge entrenched camp. Communications with the front lines were not good, with a paucity of roads and a long march beckoning for most of the newly arrived troops. The weather was also not conducive to the soldiers’ health: too hot in summer and far too cold in winter, especially in the mountain regions.

Sarrail was also forced to grapple with a complex political situation as King Constantine maintained what might be called unfriendly neutrality after the fall of the Venizelos government. This was not unnatural as the French were very high-handed, first bringing the whole Salonika region under military control and then instituting a naval blockade to force the Greek government to adopt a less pro-German aspect. The position of the Entente was undoubtedly morally suspect in their treatment of a supposedly independent neutral country.

When Greek frontier troops handed over the key frontier fortress of Rupel to the Bulgarians in May 1916 without firing a shot in its defense, the Entente realised that Greek neutrality was negotiable. At the same time, rising Greek dissent over the presence of Franco-British troops on the frontier was exacerbated by the arrival from Corfu of 118,000 Serbian troops, re-equipped and eager to avenge past defeats.

There were severe problems in controlling the endemic malaria which plagued the area. There was a plethora of pools, ponds and lakes, all of which provided the perfect habitat for mosquitoes, and any stagnant water soon became infested with their larvae. This was a concern that would endure throughout the campaign. Anti-malaria measures were vital, necessitating constant vigilance in eradicating unnecessary standing water and regularly issuing quinine to every man. Despite all these preventative measures the British alone would suffer over 162,000 cases of malaria during the campaign.

‘Any stranger seeing a soldier dressed up in anti-mosquito garb would for the first time imagine himself face to face with a scarecrow. The face and arms are thoroughly smeared with an anti-mosquito preparation called “parakit”, an excellent thing whilst it lasts; but its tendency is, of course, to get absorbed into the skin after an hour or two, and one often had to smear on a second coating. The mosquitoes didn’t like it, though, and always kept very clear of a “parakit” face. I can recommend it to any young lady worried by an over-zealous admirer! After this, shorts were turned down and tucked up into the top of the puttees, thus safeguarding the knee. Thick gloves were worn, attached by a piece of tape running through the arms and under the tunic over the back. Over the tin hat was worn a mosquito net veil, which, like that apparatus worn by a beekeeper, rendered the face and neck immune from danger.’ (Second Lieutenant Richard Skilbeck-Smith, 1st Leinster Regiment)

The summer heat of 1917 in Salonika rendered thousands of soldiers casualties to disease. The Struma valley was notorious for a particularly lethal strain of malaria, and the British had to pull back to higher ground in an attempt to reduce the numbers of the sick. Disease and lack of leave triggered mutinies in the French contingent.

Outbreaks of dysentery also weakened the troops, especially those who had already suffered at Gallipoli. Morale was a problem throughout the entire army. Indeed many of the units were not of the highest quality, and the overall situation in Salonika did little to inspire any great elan.

The success of the Russian offensive directed against Austria-Hungary in June 1916 had triggered the ambitions of Romania to share in any spoils of war. This was very welcome to the Entente, for the Romanian Army was some 400,000 strong and so obviously a valuable addition to the Entente forces. But one condition of Romanian participation was a Salonikan offensive to pin down the Bulgarian Army. Sarrail planned an attack mainly by Serbian and French troops on the left and center, which entailed the British taking over the front line covering the Serbian border between the Vardar River and Lake Doiran.

Sarrail was ordered by his government to advance beyond the Greek frontier, in anticipation that Romania was about to enter the war on the Entente side. The British local commander, General Milne, received contradictory orders from London: to consider himself under Sarrail's orders only for operations in and around the 'Birdcage', and to refrain from crossing the Greek frontier. After much discussion Sarrail was told to advance, if necessary with French and Serbian forces only. His command had swollen to a strength of 250,000 with the arrival of a Russian contingent, and in August a large Italian force joined the Salonika army.

Romania had at last decided, fatally as it happened, to enter the war, and the Bulgarians advanced in order to forestall an Entente offer of help to their new colleague. Sarrail was under orders from Paris to check the Bulgarians and to launch a counter-offensive. Only the French and Serbs took part, and the British remained in their positions on the Struma front.

Despite the complication of a Bulgarian offensive which had to be countered in August, the French and Serbian assault began in mid-September. Although some gains were made – including a tiny symbolic corner of Serbia at Monastir – the onset of the Balkan winter brought the offensive to an inconclusive end in December. Meanwhile the illusion of a pan-Balkan alliance to sweep away Austria-Hungary was shattered by the humiliating defeat of the Romanian forces by a combined German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian army. And so once again the Entente Salonika forces were left busy doing nothing.

After fierce fighting in which the Serbs distinguished themselves, the Bulgarian line was broken, and in November the Serbs renewed their attack, forcing the Bulgarians to evacuate the battered town of Monastir before the bitter winter forced an end to serious campaigning.

Romania's decision to declare war on the Central Powers was a disaster. General Erich von Falkenhayn, commanding the German 9th Army, dealt a series of shattering blows to the Romanians, forcing them to abandon their capital, Bucharest.

In early 1917, Sarrail was given the role of ‘fixing’ as many Central Powers resources as possible while Robert Nivelle launched his much-vaunted offensive on the Western Front. But Sarrail, perhaps recognizing that his forces were achieving little of substance, resolved to launch his own major offensive that April. In this ambitious attack, the British Salonika Force, now commanded by Lieutenant General Sir George Milne, would for the first time play a major role, by attacking Bulgarian positions in the hill country west of Lake Doiran, thereby threatening the tactically significant Kosturino Pass.

The terrain was tortuous, with deep ravines, steep sided ridges and hills rising to 2,000 feet. The hills had been converted into a fortress by a series of trench lines carved out of the rock creating a defensive barrier some two miles deep. Although the aim of the British attack was initially only to take the Bulgarian first line, this was still an extremely tough proposition.

After a sadly inadequate three-day barrage, the British made a night attack with Zero Hour. When the attack came it was certainly no surprise to the Bulgarian artillery, who laid down an effective barrage on the British front lines before shrapnel fizzed across the torn ground of No Man’s Land. The attack was a failure, with over 3,100 casualties in sharp contrast to just 835 lost by the successful defenders. A repeat attack ordered for a fortnight later, in a further attempt to pin the Bulgarians while the French and Serbs attacked to the west, met with no more success. The Serbian and French forces did no better, with any insignificant gains soon abandoned in the face of trenchant Bulgarian counterattacks.

The experiences of the men of the 10th Devonshire Regiment, given the thankless task of assaulting the imposing mass of the Petit Couronné, were not untypical: ‘Our guns had been blasting away all day blowing up the barbed wire and the front line trenches. As soon as it got dark we moved out of our trenches and down one side of the hill to get in the lower end of Jumeaux Ravine. “Johnny” knew we were on the move and our route – they gave us a right pasting. We soon had many casualties. They seemed to know our every move. We got so far in the ravine and then it was hell let loose. Our lads were being knocked over like ninepins. We that were able, got about halfway, the noise of the explosions was terrific. Suddenly I found myself alone. We had to walk behind each other as it was not very wide. My mates behind and in front were knocked out, one poor chap was calling out for his mother, I was nearly choked with cordite fumes, but I was unhurt, not even blown over and my bag of bombs was untouched. I had to go on. I picked my way over the bodies, I could only see by the flash of the explosions.’ (Private Francis Mullins, 10th Devonshire Regiment)

Despite it all, the Devons managed to overrun some Bulgarian trenches on the lower slopes of Petit Couronné. While the British tried to get forward reinforcements across the precipitous wasteland, the Bulgarians launched a series of increasingly furious counterattacks. The Petit Couronné was the key to their positions and they were determined to eject the interlopers: ‘They came up blowing their bugles and shouting, I suppose they thought they were going to frighten us. It was the biggest mistake they made as we knew they were there, if they had crept up quietly in the dark they would have got us quite easy, as there was not many of us left. Well, they came up, I had used up all my bombs bar one, and this one saved my life: it seems unbelievable, the pin of this bomb would not come out – if it had I would have been blown up by my own bomb – as at that moment they pitched one of their bombs in with us and knocked us all out. When I came round I knew I had to get out. I then found that I couldn’t use my right leg very well, it seemed paralysed. However, there was another chap there who was hit in the fingers and he helped to drag me up over the trench as it was every man for himself. We left about three lying in the trench, we could do nothing to help them as the Bulgars were right on top of us. I do not think that I should have got back if it had not been for this lad sticking to me, and I haven’t seen him from that day to this. I have thought many a time how I would like to thank him. Going back over Petit Couronné was no joke, we fell into the barbed wire as it was not quite daylight. There were bodies everywhere.’ (Private Francis Mullins, 10th Devonshire Regiment)

A British night attack on the Doiran front failed due to the Bulgarians' skillful use of searchlights, and the Serbs' refusal to advance after suffering over 14,000 casualties for little gain brought the offensive to a halt.

The failure of these offensives provoked a final crisis with the resolutely neutral Greek government. In June 1917 the Allies forced the abdication of Constantine and replaced him with his son, Alexander, who was far more malleable to their point of view. Almost immediately Venizelos, who had been running a pro-Entente government in exile on Crete, was reinstated as Prime Minister. He promptly declared war on the Central Powers. Most of the Balkans were now embroiled in the Great War. But still nothing much seemed to change. Certainly, the Greek Army seemed to lack any enthusiasm for the fray.

After the frictions of 1916 the Entente agreed on a defensive posture at Salonika. Sarrail's problems were increased by the Greeks, whose fully mobilized army was concentrated but static in Thessaly even though Bulgarian troops had crossed into Greek territory. Early in October 1916 Venizelos arrived by invitation in Salonika where his government was immediately recognized by the Entente. The king was now isolated, but still enjoyed considerable support in and around Athens.

The Entente began to act energetically against the Greek royalist government, seizing ships of the Royal Hellenic Navy despite riots in Athens inspired by the king's supporters. As three Venizelist battalions joined the Entente army, Germany issued a formal warning to Greece, alleging 'infringements of neutrality'. The gloom was briefly lifted by the capture of Monastir, Sarrail claiming this to be '... the first French victory since the Marne', even though most of the fighting had been done by the Serbs.

Fighting broke out in Athens at the beginning of December 1916 between troops still loyal to the king, and Entente sailors and marines. Allied ambassadors called on the king and delivered a 24-hour ultimatum to the royalist government. Reluctantly, the Greek army began to pull out of Thessaly under Anglo-French supervision. In reply, a royal warrant was issued for the arrest of Venizelos. A vicious campaign of assassination was directed against the prime minister's supporters. 'Between me and the King', commented Venizelos, 'there is now a lake of blood'.

The struggle for power in Greece came to a head after the failed offensive in the spring of 1917. King Constantine abdicated following an Entente ultimatum and was succeeded by his second son Alexander. Venizelos returned as Prime Minister, his first act being to declare war on the Central Powers.

In the spring of 1918 the great German offensive on the Western Front drained the Salonika force of troops. As more Greek troops went into the line at Salonika it was possible to send 20,000 French and British troops to France.

As the Salonika campaign staggered. on, Sarrail himself was replaced after a change in government in France brought in the distinctly unsympathetic Georges Clemenceau as premier in November 1917. Sarrail’s replacement was first General Marie-Louis Guillaumat and then, on his recall to France in June 1918, the highly regarded General Louis Franchet d’Espèrey.

After months of complaints from the other Allies, Sarrail was finally replaced in December 1917 by General Marie Louis Guillaumat. Within weeks, he succeeded in repairing all the damage wrought by the slippery Sarrail by visiting all units under his command and re-invigorating the jaded Entente forces. His opportunity to show his skills as a field commander was denied when, in June 1918, he was summarily recalled to Paris by his government and replaced by General Louis Franchet d'Espèrey.

In d’Espèrey the Armée d’Orient had a commander committed to an ‘Easterner’ strategy; indeed, he had proposed a Balkan offensive as long ago as 1914.

General d’Espèrey managed to gain permission to launch an offensive as long as he did not require extra troops. The main attack was to be made by the Serbs and French through mountainous terrain to the west of the Vardar Valley. d’Espèrey had managed to assemble covertly superior forces that outnumbered the Bulgarians by some three to one. This time the Entente were successful and, after hard fighting, managed to take the mountain peaks. In front of them lay the valleys which would channel behind the Bulgarian line.

The French broke through and, fearing encirclement, the Bulgarians finally abandoned their mountain fastness and began to retreat all along the line. There was considerable elation among the British once they realized that the Bulgarians had gone: ‘We really are on the move after the Bulgar who stole away in the night. Our patrols were in their line by 9 last night and now we have followed them up and infantry and guns are well inside. It was a very hurried flitting as two deserters told us they got the order to move at 8 at 7.30. I visited a bit of their line this afternoon. They have blown up a lot, but there are still some wonderful dugouts. The wire is tremendous everywhere.’ (Captain Robert Townsend, 10th Devonshire Regiment)

As the Entente aircraft and cavalry tore into the retreating Bulgarian columns, they soon became a rabble. Their morale was not helped by the unavoidable realization that they had been following the wrong lodestar: the news from the Western Front made it clear that Germany was defeated and the Central Powers were doomed.

Soon the British forces were in hot pursuit: ‘It has been a tremendous day. We started off on sudden orders about 9 and have marched hard over two tremendous passes and down to a village called Strumnica which is at the head of the Struma Valley and we are well into Bulgaria at last. It is a pretty country, but the dust on the road has been simply awful. The Bulgar has gone quickly but it has been a fearfully hard march and I didn’t get in until 10 o’clock absolutely beat. However it is all part of a day’s work and we are finishing off the Bulgar in great style.’ (Captain Robert Townsend, 10th Devonshire Regiment)

The Bulgarian army that had fought hard and well for three years began to disintegrate as whole units mutinied and made for home. The Anglo-French attack on the Doiran, however, met furious resistance, and the British suffered heavily. General Milne informed General d'Espèrey that his men could do no more; in any case no more was required, as the Bulgarians were broken.

The Bulgarian forces occupying Skopje surrendered and a day later Bulgaria formally surrendered. It was a bitter-sweet moment for the British Salonika Force. It had been on the winning team; but the excitement of victory had belonged to its allies. It had battled for the best part of three years but then had to be content with nothing more than a secondary role in the ultimate dénouement.

The terms of the armistice called for the demobilization of all Bulgarian forces, the evacuation of all occupied Greek and Serb territories, and a reduction in Bulgaria’s military capabilities.

In the grand scheme of things Salonika proved a truly forgettable campaign – and with good reason. Little was achieved here that victory on the Western Front would not have secured in good time. And the cost had been horrendous, for although the military losses were not as heavy as on other fronts, the combatants suffered far more casualties from the pernicious effects of disease. At the height of the British deployment over 182,500 British troops were kicking their heels, left vulnerable to malaria. There could be few more depressing fronts than Salonika.